100architects: China's Pioneers of Functional Urban Art

By Sophie Steiner, December 17, 2021

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They say architecture is about trying to make the world a little more like our dreams, and 100architects – a Shanghai-based studio that prides itself on following the convention of being unconventional – is all about that.

Specializing in street architecture, urban interventions and urban beautification, 100architects aims to design and shape cities by fostering connections between people, places, nature, movement and urban form. 

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We sat down with 100architects founder and managing director, Chilean Marcial Jesús, to learn about how a 2013 gathering of friends with a creative streak evolved into a leading pioneer in the field of functional urban art within the public realm.

For those that don't know, what is 100architects?
100architects is an architecture studio that doesn’t do buildings (at least not in a conventional way). We specialize in public spaces that – through our experimental design approach – aim to transform the cityscape we know today into the hyper-stimulating one we envision for tomorrow.

We are a young team of international Shanghai-based architects and designers whose work lies at the intersection of place-making, street art, landscape architecture and urban interventions.

Our mission is to improve our cities and the experience of citizens in the public realm by providing innovative and stimulating public spaces, inclusive and accessible to everyone.

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How has 100architects evolved since starting in 2013?
We started out as a group of friends meeting after long days in the office to work on eccentric concepts for cities across the globe with zero budget nor client asking for them. Now, we are a team of 16 people split by expertise across departments dedicated full time to serving clients and building out proposals for cities across the globe. 

At the beginning, we pushed our creativity to the limit to see what we were capable of and to showcase our style to potential clients. We designed many colorful urban interventions in varying size and scope, projects that would call attention to themselves purely by being different from what one usually sees in major cities.

Although we didn’t build many of these projects, we garnered a following and developed expertise – along with a robust portfolio – that helped us gain traction with our first clients. Our earliest project was in Santiago in 2014, then another in Shanghai's Xintiandi in 2016 – both of which were temporary installations for activation of public spaces. 

Most of our initial projects were temporary in nature because of the experimental style of our proposals. However, now we focus more on large, permanent urban projects – or landscape architecture – and large masterplans to transform a known cityscape with enhanced creativity, colors and innovative spatial solutions. 

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Where does the name 100architects come from?
Unlike many of our architecture firm counterparts, we wanted our name to stand out, rather than just be the cookie-cutter founder's surname plus ‘associates.’ Very few architecture firms have distinctive names that represent what they are and the values they possess.

Our company is different; we focus on stimulating architecture and hyper-creative projects, and our company name needs to reflect that. It couldn’t just involve our surnames either since it needed to represent something bigger than just ourselves.

100 can be read in any language as numbers require no translation. 100 stands for greatness – 100%, completion, approval. It is a company that pushes us, our team, our projects and the cities where we work to their full potential. 

We are not 100 yet, but we will be.

Plus, it’s catchy. You’ll never forget the name now, right? *wink*

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How is 100architects different than other architecture firms, in terms of projects and focus?
We believe that working in the public realm is a privilege; this is where our design has the biggest impact on the largest number of people. At the same time, we believe play is the purest form of creativity.

Thus, we imagine cities as playgrounds for citizens, regardless of age or social status, and our practice revolves around these core values. We consider our office an experimental lab for ingenious urban solutions, driven by the passion of shaping the cities of tomorrow – a tomorrow full of colors, entertainment and stimulation.

We make sure every project is developed with an ‘out of the box’ mentality. In fact, our clients come to 100architects only when they want something different and outstanding; they come to us when they require an injection of energy and identity into their developments, or simply when they want to catalyze social dynamics in their spaces.

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100architects’ projects tend to blur the line between art installations and architecture. What provides artistic inspiration, and is visual appeal or functionality the overall goal?
We play into the culture of hyper-stimulation. Like works of art, without viewers (or, in our case, users) our projects are meaningless as they must stimulate users in order to be purposeful – that’s exactly where functionality kicks in. 

As architects, we conceive our projects to be used and occupied, not only to be perceived and watched, which is how we distinguish our work from pure art. Our projects have a very important functional purpose; we do not design sculptures or decoration.

Instead, we design functional urban artifacts with meaningful narratives that pop, are eye-catching and contrast their surroundings – hence our particular use of color and iconic shapes.

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By specializing in street architecture and urban interventions, how do you aim to have your work engage with cityscapes and city dwellers?
We have a few tricks for that, almost like a recipe that makes our projects successful in terms of engagement. Most important is the element of fantasy and surprise. 

Fantasy is powerful for boosting the imagination and creativity of users, regardless of age. Thus, rather than just spaces, we try to create immersive experiences.

Surprise relates to the feeling of encountering completely unexpected spaces when walking through a city, turning around a corner and suddenly finding something you were not expecting to see. That’s something we intentionally seek.

It is through these two attributes that our urban interventions make the first link to engage with an audience. Once that link is created, our projects are pure platforms for the community to colonize – not only to enjoy the spaces themselves, but, most importantly, to enjoy the social interactions that those spaces encourage through their morphology.

The ultimate purpose of those spaces is to be used by the community, even in totally different ways than those that were not planned by our studio.

In a world where technology, social media and online retail are replacing and eliminating our natural meeting places, we believe that our design should explore ways to stimulate human interactions in the urban space.

At the end of the day, it is human connectivity that triggers happiness, productivity, innovation and overall wellbeing.

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What have been some of the biggest challenges working in China, and – on the other side of the table – what has been the biggest advantage?
In China, public space is such a delicate and extensive matter, not only from a design point of view, but also from a sociological, cultural and political point of view.

The concept of public space in China differs a lot from the way it is understood in western countries. In Chinese cities, public spaces are more like corridors – big streets and wide sidewalks – it seems like public spaces are merely gaps between buildings, extensive walkways with no public furniture to sit down, where one can only circulate from point A to point B.

The Bund in Shanghai, for instance, is the most well-recognized public space in the city, yet it’s essentially a wide hardscape platform on which thousands of people walk every day, admiring the colossal scale of the city.

However, this situation is a product of the most dramatic urban transformation the world has ever seen. That’s the reason why we can still see elderly Chinese citizens gathering along sidewalks with their own foldable chairs and tables, playing mahjong or simply gathering and chatting, or why women organize group dances every night in parks.

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On the one hand, this situation is a huge challenge for a practice like ours to be able to intervene in public spaces and penetrate their idiosyncrasy. However, on the other hand, the same rapid urbanization and globalization process has generated a need for identity and distinction of those new developments. 

In that regard, there is a new type of public space in China, commonly known as POPS – Privately Owned Public Spaces. POPS, although privately owned, are legally required by the city’s land-use ordinances – as a result of deals between private developers and cities – to grant public space share in private developments.

They must stay open to the public, and, as a consequence, exactly the same social dynamics take place in those spaces as the ones happening in purely public spaces. Hence they become potential spaces to be developed by our firm, despite its controversial nature.

Finally, an unconsolidated market brings many opportunities for newcomers with fresh ideas. I believe that starting 100architects in London or New York when I was 25 would have been impossible since the established architectural field there requires years of experience and credentials. 

In China, however, we took advantage of the openness for experimentation of a country passing through a dramatic urban transformation. There was, and there still is, space for fresh ideas and experimentation. 

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Can you talk about the scope of Chinese mainland operations?  What do you have planned for the coming months and years in terms of specifically Chinese projects?
Our studio is based in Shanghai, but we design and build projects all over China and abroad. We currently have 16 employees, both foreigners and Chinese nationals.

So far, we have built around 40 projects across 10 cities in China. However, our business is accelerating and constantly transforming. Every year is different because we are always growing, not only our team but also our expertise and market reach.

Currently, we have seven projects under construction, and they are nothing like what we have done so far. They are much bigger and more complex, set to be released in the coming months. Other than that, we have projects under construction in Malaga, Spain, in San Fransisco, USA and in the Arabian Peninsula.

Being a brand that specializes in visual art and creativity, it makes sense that 100architects has built a reputation of being aesthetically pleasing. Can you talk a bit about how you leverage social media in China to gain brand awareness? 
We could say that social media has been the fuel for the success of 100architects. We used to create projects without any clients asking for them, just for the sake of proving our vision and calling attention from potential like-minded clients. We would post our creations on social media platforms and wait to see how people would react.

Nowadays, we continue doing the same but with built projects. We continue to strengthen our efforts in spreading and publishing all our projects on both foreign and local social media platforms.

We currently publish on our WeChat Platform, WeChat Channels and Youku, and we are working on the launch of our Xiaohongshu and Douyin channels. But, our main platforms are Instagram and our WeChat Official Account.  

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What 100architects project – temporary installation or permanent work – are you most proud of?
Any architect, sculptor, artist or designer will tell you that projects are like our babies. We conceive them; we nurture them; we take care of them; and we see them evolve throughout the design process until completion.

Creating something from scratch is one of the most beautiful feelings a human being can experience. We are lucky enough to make a living from our passion to create. That means that we are tremendously proud of every one of our projects. 

That being said, if I had to choose, the very first one, Huellas Artes in Chile (below), holds a special place in my heart – for its humbleness, for being self-financed, for making it come to fruition despite our inexperience at the time – all thanks to an inner flame and passion for creating something.

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The Creek Play in Dubai (below) also signified the internationalization of our brand outside of China.

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And, last but not least, Pegasus Trail in Chongqing (below). Truly unique in China, this permanently open public space allows users to freely enjoy an incredible urban artifact full of colors and possibilities for interactions.

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WechatIMG940.jpegWhat does 100architects have in store for the next 5-10 years?
We have many projects currently under construction across China that are unlike anything we have done before, making each one a milestone for our experimental business. Together, these projects help us prove our vision, bringing us new possibilities for reaching bigger markets.

We are also working on our first project in the USA (San Francisco) and our first project in Europe (Malaga, Spain), which we expect will open entirely new markets for us, propelling us to expand our operations with the opening of a new 100architects European office in the coming year. 

In 10 years, I know we will have grown from a motley crew of architect friends with a dream of doing something different to a large internationally-operated company spread across Asia, Europe and the Americas. 


[All images courtesy of 100architects]

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